Among the many noticeable changes on St. John in recent years is the influx of people from the Dominican Republic. It is now common to hear Spanish spoken in shops, on the streets, at the beach—wherever people on St. John congregate.
The size of the Spanish-speaking population is unknown; estimates range from several hundred to more than a thousand. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 207 people on St. John identified as Hispanic or Latino. In 2010, the number had more than doubled to 437.
The 2014 Virgin Islands Community Survey, which extrapolates results from population samples, found that 626 St. John residents described themselves as Hispanic or Latino, according to Frank Mills, acting director of the Eastern Caribbean Center at the University of the Virgin Islands.
David F. Obando, pastor of Iglesia de Dios, Estrella de la Mañana (Star of the Morning, Church of God), moved to St. John in 2012 to minister to the growing population of Spanish speakers. Born and raised on St. Croix with ancestors from Belize and Puerto Rico, Spanish is his first language.
“My pastor, Israel Cruz Taylor, was the one who asked me to pastor the church on St. John,” said Obando. “I was a bit reluctant at first, but after a time of prayer, and confirmation that it was a move I should make, I relocated with my family.”
His efforts have brought success. The Church of God now offers services in English twice a week, Spanish three times a week, and Haitian Creole twice a week.
Between 50 and 60 Spanish-speaking people regularly attend services in Spanish at 6:30 p.m. Sundays; they also meet for services at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays.
“The first pastors that were here found that the Spanish-speakers couldn’t attend services in the morning,” said Obando. Most of his congregation are working people from the Dominican Republic who must be available to take jobs when they come, usually in construction, housekeeping and restaurant work, he said. A number of professionals – lawyers and dentists who have degrees from the Dominican Republic – aren’t able to get their licenses in the territory, he added.
In January, the congregation moved from its former location next to the St. John School of the Arts to its new location on Centerline Road, which in the past served as a meeting place for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and later for St. John Rescue. The church now hopes to purchase the building.
“The men from the Spanish and English congregations poured their hearts into the remodeling of the building,” said Obando. Their skill in the construction trade is evident from the new tiles, the freshly painted walls, and the windows that make the modest space appear bigger than it is.
Obando says many of the members of his church have limited skills as English speakers; they know enough to function on the job but not enough to merge with the larger community. Obando has worked as a translator for the court system on St. Thomas and St. John, and he and his wife Jessica often help members of the congregation fill out the paperwork they need for jobs, schools, and government services.
He feels there is a need to provide more instruction for English Language Learners on the island. Classes for adults are available two nights a week at the Julius E. Sprauve School funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Center program. The Department of Education offered ELL classes four nights a week in 2014 and 2015, but funding for that program was lost.
Perhaps because of the language barrier, “The Spanish people tend to be very united,” said Obando. They gather for softball games, beach parties, dominos, holidays and special events.
“If someone has a need, the whole Spanish-speaking community gets together to raise funds,” he said.
The Spanish congregation sponsors a program called “The Heart of the Servant,” Obando said.
“If someone has a need, and it’s something that we can do, like fix something around the house, if they can get the materials, we’ll provide the labor,” he explained. “With the Spanish congregation, we’re working together to contribute and positively impact the community.”
The Spanish congregation has “unofficially adopted” what they have named “El Palo”–the tree-covered corner that was the site of the old Texaco station in Cruz Bay.
“We meet around 6:30 a.m., clean up the area, say a prayer, share the gospel with the friends present at the time, and conclude with some johnny cake and hot chocolate.”
Obando said the church members also partner with the Cruz Bay Seventh-day Adventist Church to feed a group of homeless people on alternating Sunday mornings.
“On St. John, the Spanish and the English communities intermingle during softball tournaments or at public events,” said Obando. The Pine Peace basketball court is another place where the English community and Spanish community interact, and he has assisted in bridging the gap sometimes caused by the language barrier. In the past, some young members of the Spanish community have faced bullying and been challenged to fights.
“It has died down a bit, but it still exists,” he added.
As the father of young children, Obando is committed to establishing programs to meet the needs of the youth. “If they have nothing to do, they will find something to do,” he said, adding that it’s important that adults guide youngsters toward constructive activities.
Obando plays several instruments, and encourages young people to participate in musical offerings. A keyboard and a drum set which flank the lectern at the front of the church are an integral part of services.
In addition to the services in Spanish, the Church of God offers services in English at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Sundays, led by Bishop Earl V. Harrison and the Rev. Wiltshire. The Rev. Veniel Amilcat also travels from St. Thomas to minister to St. John’s Haitian Creole community at 8 p.m. Thursdays at and 9:30 a.m. Sundays.